Originally published in The Apollos.
Pop-Tarts, brownies, loaves of white bread, and single serving packages of butter laid before me. All I could see was sugar, trans fat, food coloring, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and plastic. A gentle wind blew across the great lawn. Students stuffed sleeping bags and tents into full packs. It was hard to believe this was the food we were taking on an overnight backpacking trip in the Adirondacks, walking off Paul Smith’s campus and into the woods.
“Brownie?” I tore into the plastic covering and offered a pre-cut square to the group. No takers. Politely they shook their heads and continued packing. A greasy substance stuck on my fingertips. I set the brownie down and wiped my hand against the grass. What were the brownies made of? And where were they made? An image of a sterile factory, hair nets, and conveyor belt came to mind. I scanned the pile of food, grabbed an apple, and tossed it in my bear bag. When I entered the cafeteria to return our extra supplies, the air smelt like a bakery – giving a false sense of hunger and want. Waffle batter hit the grill and sizzled. Students mingled around the choices for breakfast: granola with a high sugar and fat content, artificially colored yogurt, and fruit salad coming out of a can. Is this food? Really?
To begin with, this is not solely a complaint against our college food supplier, Sodexo, a food service and facilities management corporation based out of Paris, France. This is also an essay about the American food system. This is an essay about being an educated consumer and understanding the relationship between what you eat and how it impacts the environment. This is an essay about how to be a healthy college student. And finally, this essay is about how we have the choice to act and how complaints don’t usually transform into action.
The American Food System
When I was 10, my mother sat me on our kitchen counter and taught me the difference between “good” food and “bad” food. I’d recently been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis – a chronic digestive disease of the large intestine – and she put me on a no-dairy, no-flour, no-white sugar diet. Multiple doctors told her a change in my diet would not impact my disease and recommended a wide variety of medications. Instead, she purchased books and enrolled in a local health food store co-op. In 1997, she was ahead of the gluten-free and health-conscience craze. At the supermarket, we’d read ingredient labels and search out the infamous high fructose corn syrup, long before the documentaries Food Inc. and King Corn came out. In a matter of months, by removing processed food from my diet, I went from being hospitalized to running around the soccer field with surplus amounts of energy.
The American food system is a product of convenience and a fast-paced living style. It’s run like a big business factory and has little to do with food. If you were to take a snapshot of the American diet, it might look something like this: hamburgers, hot dogs, soda, pizza, cup cakes, and ice cream. Break it down, Americans eat a lot of meat, dairy, and sugar. According to the recent series on food, in National Geographic:
- Meat: In America, animals raised for meat consume 30 million pounds of antibiotics annually.
- Dairy: The USDA spends $550 million each year to promote the consumption of dairy products. The two most common advertising themes are, “Low-fat dairy is good for you to lead an active lifestyle,” and “High-fat dairy is a guilty pleasure.”
- Sugar: In 1900, the average American consumed 5lbs of sugar per year. In 2000, the average consumption was 150lbs per year. That’s 30 times more.
How to be an educated consumer
Two years ago, I traveled to India for graduate school and stayed at an ashram built by Gandhi. All food was grown on site and bean plants with orange blossoms crept up my clothesline. Our diet was strictly vegetarian and the only dairy we received was yogurt made from goat milk. We slept on wooden beds with thin mattresses and studied Gandhi’s march to the sea to make salt. Each morning, I woke before the sun rose, listened to the birds and helped the woman start the breakfast fires. I felt at peace and thankful for each morsel of food I consumed. At the ashram, there was no gluttony. No surplus. It was mindful living.
Gandhi preached self-reliance through growing your own food and making your own clothes. At the time, India was a British colony. Cotton would be grown in the fields, sent to England and returned as material with a healthy tax on it. One of the principles behind Gandhi’s march to the sea was to show the people that they could make their own salt and not have to buy the taxed British version. At his ashram, Gandhi educated many on how to be a consumer that supported the local market.
When I returned to America, I tried my best to replicate my Indian lifestyle. It was hard. And between the jet lag, reintroduction to the Adirondack winter, and American food I felt exhausted within a matter of days. On first impact, America seemed centuries different than India. Determined to be more mindful with my lifestyle, I dug a bit deeper and was quickly surrounded by a local and national community of health advocates. Today, we’re in the midst of a new generation of muckrakers producing articles, books and documentaries about our food system and materialist lifestyle. Just hop on Netflix and browse the selection. It may be harder, but you can live a very simple and healthy existence in this part of the world. You can eat local and organic. You can live in a tiny house off the grid. We have the community support system. It’s all about what and how much you consume. Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules, recommends: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” Think of the example Gandhi referred to: You can buy the British salt or you can make your own. The choice is yours. Even in the dining hall, certain options trump others. For example, drink water over soda.
- Read food labels. Stay away from high fructose corn syrup and ingredients you cannot pronounce.
- Research food companies and who owns them.
- Ask questions about what you’re eating and where it comes from.
- Go to farmers’ markets and buy as much local produce as possible. Learn how to can and preserve food.
- Be a farmer or make friends with a farmer. There are some things you can’t learn through reading a book or watching a documentary and must get your hands dirty for.
How to be a healthy college student
On the overnight backpacking trip, I heard one of the students say, “It’s nice to get away from campus.” It seemed to be the mutual feeling of the trip. Exercise and sweat are a natural detox. And time on trail seems to put worries into perspective. Minds work more efficiently when we’re in motion. After college, for four years I worked as a wilderness therapy instructor, leading at-risk teenagers into the woods for backpacking trips. It was the hardest and most rewarding job I’ve ever encountered. Most of the students came into the program against their will and with drugs in their system. The first night was typically the hardest. Kids paced around, jittery for a cigarette or joint, crying and saying, “I can’t do this. I’ll change. I’ll change. I promise.” A week later, their eyes were alert and clear. A month later, their minds and bodies were strong from life in the woods. After they left the program, however, the majority relapsed after months of sobriety.
So, why did they relapse? Well, it’s easy to be sober in the backcountry with a diet of oats, rice and lentils, a routine sleep cycle, and regimen of daily exercise. As humans, we’re constantly impacted by the behavior of others. For example, have you ever been on a team or working in a group and the poor attitude of one sours others? Or, have you seen someone’s positive energy and viewpoint lift a group? Unfortunately, college can be an unhealthy/depressing place, and that culture can impact you. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 30 percent of college students report feeling depressed compared to the national average of five percent (study conducted in 2011.)What happens in college? Why the huge increase? Is it the food? Drugs? Alcohol? Roommates? Living away from home? Irregular sleep hours? Stress of school work? Personal relationships? Most likely, it’s a combination of many personal and environmental factors.
My college days, split between SUNY Oneonta and Paul Smith’s, were the most unhealthy and unhappy of my life. I struggled with drugs, alcohol, food, and depression. The drugs and alcohol were a battle in the beginning and the depression was an epic grand finale that peaked March of my senior year. And as for food… Well, I stopped taking my medication for ulcerative colitis and ate everything my mother had taught me not to. If I had to boil it down to one thing: I was trying to numb myself from the pressures of life. My senior year was the hardest. I was burnt out on college and floundering to complete my capstone. I avoided tasks and people and procrastinated. Add an Adirondack winter on top and there were days I wouldn’t come out of my dorm room. Depression is a hard cycle to break. And here’s the thing I find odd, now looking back on it: I didn’t tell anyone. I was too embarrassed. I’d never suffered from depression and I felt weak asking for help. While I was hanging on to the end of my rope, I continued to smile and pretend everything was okay.
So, what got me out? Partnership. I had stopped running when the depression hit, and one day a friend coaxed me back into it. The first run was monumental. It showed me a glimpse of my “old” self and reminded me how important it was to take care of my body. In life, there are more things out of our control than in our control. However, that group of things that are within our control, are so important. Especially when you’re fighting a disease or illness. It might sound very elementary, but the basics are powerful. Eat well, drink lots of water, get seven to eight hours of sleep each night, and exercise. If you want to be a healthier and happier person, find a friend who wants similar objectives. Surround yourself with what you want to be. Of course, it took time to rebuild, but I’ll always remember that long overdue run beside Lower Saint Regis, and listening to the ice break.
Want to be healthier and happier? In the next week try to:
- Hike Saint Regis or mountain in the area. At the trailhead, reflect on something you are stressing about, problem shoot it on your hike, and metaphorically leave it on the summit.
- Pick an apple from a local tree and eat it while doing homework outside.
- Go for a paddle and count the things you’re thankful for.
- Watch the sun rise or set.
- Take a picture of the fall foliage or collect the most brilliant leaves you can find and press them in a text book.
The Choice to Act
There’s a short list of things in life that I believe in fighting for. I mean really, tooth and nail, fight for. Mindful, healthy living is one of them. In this lifetime, we all have the potential to meet and be our best selves. At Paul Smith’s College, I believe we have to rethink the term student support. Academic success is a holistic web of many components that influence one another. For example, during my depression, my grades went down from As to Cs. At the foundation of any student success is a lifestyle that supports physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. So here’s a question: Does our current food system on campus support our students?
In wilderness therapy, as an instructor, I’d never ask my students to do something I was unwilling to do. Whether that was summiting a High Peak on a foul weather day or filling in a full latrine. On the overnight backpacking trip I described at the beginning of this essay, I would not eat the food offered by Sodexo and brought in my own. I knew if I ate the bread, butter, and high sugar, I wouldn’t be my best self physically or mentally. Food has a tremendous impact on how you feel. After college, I recommitted to a low sugar and whole food diet. Even with meager post-college wages, I bought my groceries from Nori’s, climbed mountains, ran, biked, and felt invincible, by August. Once you detox from processed foods, you can feel them more strongly in your system upon consumption. For example, one summer, I worked at a primitive skills camp and we ate from the gardens and woods. I came back to Paul Smith’s for soccer pre-season and after a week of eating at Sodexo I felt sluggish and foggy. It was very similar to the transition I felt going from India back to America.
Students, you are the consumers of Paul Smith’s College and believe it or not, you control the market. Sodexo has been protested in the past for its lack of local food. Nine times. But many times we complain about systems and do not offer solutions to fix them. Or sometimes we offer solutions and lose momentum along the way. I can attest students at Paul Smith’s College voiced complaints about the food choices they were offered in 2007, and continue to today. In a recent SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) completed by my Politics of the Environment Class, 88 percent of the 50 surveyed listed Sodexo and limited food options on campus to be a weakness of Paul Smith’s College. I agree.
With that said, I will end on the positive note of an opportunity. Paul Smith’s College has the opportunity to provide better food to its students, and better food will support a better lifestyle. My mind races with the opportunities that surround us: farmers, community supported agriculture, raised beds, land, and the knowledge to cultivate and cook the food produced.Check out what our students and chefs are doing with farm-to-table dining. Who would have thought? Growing your own food – and eating it, too. It’s exactly what Gandhi taught and why he marched to the sea. Be the change. Make your own salt. We have the resources, the knowledge, the draft horses, the community support and interest. Now it’s time to pack our bags and march to the sea.
Recommendations to Paul Smith’s College:
- Offer a wider variety of food dining options in the form of cafes and small stores. Have a whole foods store on campus similar to Nori’s where students can buy groceries (or at least a section in the bookstore dedicated to healthy food choices).
- Have an oatmeal bar in the dining hall with whole oats, nuts and dried fruit.
- Change dining hall hours to accommodate a healthy lifestyle. If I’m going for a High Peak hike on the weekend, I’m starting my day at 6am, not at 9am. Maybe a station for make your own GORP? (Good ol’ raisins, peanuts and other fixings.)
- Invest in hoop houses, greenhouses and food production. Expand the farm to table program and invest in CSAs in the area.